In my roundup of 2016 I mentioned the repatriation malaise or reverse culture shock I felt about 5-6 months after returning home. Here’s something I wrote at the time.

I do feel at home here. I know people say things like ‘you can never go back’ and that expats ‘never feel at home anywhere again’, but I’m feeling pretty welcomed back by London and my old life.

It’s weird to be back so completely – back in our flat, in our neighbourhood, friendship and family networks, and most of all, back at the university where I did my PhD and taught for four years. I’m even teaching a very similar course – the other day the course convenor referred to ‘last year’ as if I’d been here. I could very easily forget I’d been away at all.

I’m back working practically full time, thanks to two jobs, which is busy but makes me feel just like my old self. Which leads me to wonder, what on earth was I doing with myself for 18 and a bit months in the States. And who on earth was I?

 

Women’s Health in the States

Another post written last year in the States, before we came back to the UK. Of course this was also during the Obama care era, so things will probably change…

After about 15 months living over here I finally had to find someone to refill my birth control medication. Thanks to an understanding GP in the UK and a couple of visits home I’d managed for about nine months without having to negotiate the US health system, but after that I realized I’d have to make a start at finding a doctor.

I knew that in the States people can choose their own specialist and don’t need a referral from a GP. It’s actually not essential to have a GP – many of whom are known as internalists (specialists in internal medicine). (What’s external medicine I wonder…?) I then found out that the medical insurance we have, from the company that is sponsoring R’s visa, allows us to access either doctors who are in their network, or to go ‘out of network’ without any financial penalty. So now I almost had too much choice as to what sort of doctor/practice to go to, and no real way of knowing how to make the best choice.

I spent probably the best part of an hour scouring the list of in-network gynecologists (or OB GYNs), looking them up on the map, checking to see if there were reviews on Yelp – as if I were choosing a restaurant – and cross-checking with a good online medical service I found called ZocDoc. Weirdly there didn’t seem to be many OB GYNs in DC itself, so I found myself choosing between going to Bethesda in Maryland or North Arlington in Virginia. Based on distance from the metro, some nice Yelp reviews, and availability I chose my practitioner. It hardly seemed the best way to choose – using the same comparison site I use to find good pizza – but at least a decision had been made.

And I have been thoroughly satisfied – and not a little surprised – by my experiences. My doctor works for an outfit called the Physicians and Midwives Collaborative Practice, which I immediately liked the sound of. The office is very clean, modern and comfortable. Everyone is very friendly – more than one of them calls me ‘dear’ (though this is less affectionate and more like a conversational tic). Best of all, I’ve not been charged a co-pay on either of my visits.

The first time I went simply to get a refill of my prescription, though I knew there was a possibility I might have to get an exam (I’ve heard that this is more common in the States). They were good about getting a pretty complete history and wrote me a prescription for 3 months without an exam, on the condition that I make an appointment for a full physical. I had taken my British medication and the information leaflet with me so that the doctor could find an American equivalent, and she made an effort to find a generic version that was as close to mine as possible. As I said, I didn’t have to pay anything that visit, and while my insurance company makes me pay for my prescriptions up-front, I can claim back the full cost.

The second appointment came round and I turned up largely unconcerned – I don’t personally find these screenings at all problematic and actually have more anxiety about having my blood pressure taken (which obviously doesn’t help with the result!). But it turned out there are quite a few differences in practice between the UK and the US! Mostly in the UK the procedure has been done by a nurse, or maybe a nurse practitioner. Only the necessary clothes have had to be removed, and it’s been carried out on a normal GP bed.

Over here – in this practice at least – all clothes had to be removed and I was given a full-on hospital gown, in which I waited for my doctor. Thankfully I’d brought a book, and after about quarter of an hour she arrived. We had a conversation about my plans (or not) to have children, in which it was suggested that at my age I might want to look into getting my eggs frozen(!), and then there was the awkward getting into position on the gynecological table with stirrups that I’d seen in so many American TV shows. After some poking and prodding of various glands, the smear was reassuringly familiar, and after this I was ready to be getting up and heading home. So I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being pushed and prodded further, as she apparently examined my reproductive organs! I finally understand the joke about how gynecologists should probably buy you dinner before the exam – she now knows my uterus better than I do!

Again though, I was pleasantly surprised by not being asked to pay anything for this experience. I have read that recent changes in healthcare law have made all these sort of preventative health appointments free of any upfront charges – the entire cost being covered by the insurance company [Ed – thanks for the memories Obama!]. This must be a good thing in terms of detecting problems sooner as I can imagine that the idea of having to pay for a screening would be that extra reason not to go as regularly as you should. I’d also be genuinely interested to know whether the more invasive and thorough physical exam leads to cancers being found more quickly in the US than in the UK.

In any case, I survived my first experiences with American OB GYNs, and next time at least there should be fewer surprises!

How to eat American food for 18 months and not put on weight

‘Are you exercising?’ This was the doctor’s question which when put to me by my GP in London had me lying through my teeth. But in DC I didn’t miss a beat as I answered in the affirmative – ‘of course.’

To avoid this post becoming unbearably smug, I will admit that in the first few months living in DC I put on at least half a stone. We were eating out a lot and enjoying American beer. After that time I realized I couldn’t eat as if I were on holiday for the entire time we were here, and I would have to start running.

The first thing I saw when our taxi pulled off Memorial Bridge and into DC proper were runners. It was March, but the sun was shining and beautiful people were making use of the trails down Rock Creek Parkway and on the Potomac to break in their good-looking trainers and work-out clothes. As I spent more time in the city I realised that people could often be seen in workout gear – they were on their way home from the gym or from yoga, or on their way to Crossfit, or just going to have a run sometime that day. To support all this, there were a lot of sports shops in DC, including the appealingly named small independent store, Fleet Feet, downstairs in my building.

So I joined the movement, and did what I had barely ever done before – I started running outside.

It was hard at first, and I have to admit that when the humidity got too high I retreated back to the treadmill, but for most of the autumn and spring times* in DC I ran outside pretty much every week. I had some lovely places to run. Initially I chose to run across Ellington and Calvert bridges because this was nearly all on the flat, but I soon realised that the main advantage was the views. As I became better at dealing with hills, the whole of Rock Creek Park became available to me and made running an actual pleasure.

Rock Creek Park is a large area (1754 acres) of relatively wild parkland in the NW of DC, containing the creek as well as a network of cycle paths, equestrian trails and hiking routes. While we didn’t take up cycling or horse-riding, we did hike in the park pretty regularly, as it was really easy to access from our apartment block.

Other facilities available in DC were an amazing number of free, and very well-kept, public tennis courts.

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As an ex-pat partner who at times was not allowed to work, I was able to play tennis very regularly at least one summer after finding a good partner. There was also canoeing available on the Potomac river – as well as pedaloes in the Tidal Basin. We found the Key Bridge watersports center was the best of the two available and often got Canadian canoes from there to either paddle around Roosevelt Island and down to the monuments, or upstream to watch for turtles and cormorants.

On our holidays we love nothing better than to eat and drink well in the evenings and to hike or play tennis during the days. In this way, DC made our day-to-day life feel like a holiday – while saving us from obesity!

*in DC winter really only hits in December, and spring starts around March. It’s also pretty much bearable to be running up until July.

Expat life: the truth?

This is another post written just before we headed home to the UK. 

The other day I took part in an HSBC/YouGov survey about Expat life, which was basically a whole set of questions about whether I thought moving abroad had been good for us, professionally and financially.

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The cold hard truth is that, no, it hasn’t been that great for us financially.

All the expenses/costs of expat life came as a bit of a shock. We’ve gone down to one salary between the two of us, DC is far more expensive than we thought it would be, and we don’t do that well in terms of tax.

Rationally speaking, it’s really not a good idea to take a job in America unless you’re getting a really good package, or are working for a UK outfit over here. Market-rate salaries are usually calculated based on cost of living, including US tax levels. If you’re a British expat though, you have to pay tax at UK rates – making up the difference in the UK for what you’re not paying over here. You also don’t get the same deductions/allowances as US citizens (e.g. we couldn’t file jointly), so often your payroll won’t hold back enough tax and you end up with a tax bill while everyone else is enjoying ‘tax refund season’.

Health costs are also a fact of life over here. You always have to keep a certain amount of money in your account in case you need dental work for example.

And of course it was really difficult to get set up with a bank account and credit card. We were very lucky that one of us already had a social security number, and that the other of us had an HSBC account and a good credit record with them. We definitely needed the very modest relocation allowance we got, as we had to pay 1.5 months rent in advance and buy a mobile phone up-front, as we had no credit record in the US.

Now, I don’t like to complain – we are of course incredibly lucky to be able to have this adventure and to see so many amazing things – but this survey just brought home to me how, in many ways, we were materially better off in the UK. For some people I think time abroad can be financially positive, but I wanted to make it clear that this isn’t the story for everyone who moves abroad for work.

Luckily, life isn’t just about the financials, and our expat life can’t be boiled down to a balance sheet. Not only have we had some amazing experiences, but we’ve also learnt a lot and become much closer as a couple. There are probably a number of gains from these years that we’ll only realise in the future…

But right now I’d just like a bit more disposable income!

 

Thinking through the ex-pat experience

This is a post written last year, just before we headed home to the UK.

I came across a list of words to describe ‘wanderlust’ on Wordables, and wondered what they meant to me now following this experience of living abroad.

Fernweh (n.) An ache for distant places; the craving for travel. (German)

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I’ve always loved this one. I’ve certainly experienced a craving for travel while in America. As is pretty obvious from my blog, we’ve given into this craving as much as possible, but I still get frustrated, knowing there’s so much of America still to see, but we’re prevented from jetting off and seeing it by a lack of funds, or a limited number of vacation days. Now and again I also get cravings to go back to favourite places in Italy, or France. I don’t feel we made the most of being in Europe when we were living in the UK.

Nefelibata (n.) Lit. ‘cloud-walker’; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination or dreams or one who does not obey the conventions of society, literature, or art. (Spanish and Portuguese)

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I like this one – in some ways it describes the way I like to feel that we don’t do what’s expected, don’t fit into a particular way of living, and therefore end up living alone, unable to see the path ahead in the mist. The ex-pat experience has been challenging at times, but it has underlined for me the fact that unexpected things will happen in life, and we don’t always have a road map – but things will usually be ok anyway.

Numinous (adj.) Describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted – the powerful, personal experience of being overwhelmed and inspired. (English)

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This sounds like the Romantic sublime. It definitely captures how I initially felt about moving to the States, and how I feel about the future. Once you’ve done the unexpected once, it feels like there are so many opportunities out there that you might go for – so many possible futures – and that can be overwhelming as well as inspiring.

Resfeber (n.) The restless race of the traveller’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; a ‘travel fever’ that can manifest as an illness. (Swedish)

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I’ve become a much better traveller since I’ve been out here. Though I still get flutters of nerves before a journey, I’m far better at just getting going, putting one foot in front of the other, with the assurance that it will all probably be fine.

Nemophilist (n.) A haunter of the woods; one who loves the forest and its beauty and solitude. (English)

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I’m ambivalent about the forest. On the one hand I love its silence and the way it can seem to stretch on and on forever in this country. However, it can also be a bit boring to walk in – the trees obscuring any views there might have been.

Annus Mirabilis (n.) (phr.) A remarkable or notable year in history; a year of wonders and miracles, used to speak hopefully of the future. (Latin)

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As nearly every ex-pat will tell you, living abroad can be full of wonders and miracles, but it’s also very much full of the mundane and banal, as well as the occasional dies horribilis(!)

Smultroställe (n.) Lit. ‘place of wild strawberries’; a special place discovered, treasured, returned to for solace and relaxation; a personal idyll free from stress or sadness. (Swedish)

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On the balcony of our current apartment

I’m not sure that any place that we return to in DC has entirely escaped stress or sadness, but there are certainly places in the States more generally that we’d like to return to. Yellowstone was absolutely an idyll, as was Maine that first summer we were out here, and we loved the San Francisco bay area of California. On a more mundane level though, I suppose our balcony has always been there for us, when we just need a quiet moment in the sun with a beer.